Emily Torchiana is a sophomore at College of Charleston. She was recently re-elected as the secretary of Student Government on March 26. In her campaign, she ran against two different people and out of roughly 1,600 voters, Emily received support from 1,180. She is electric, energetic, kind and passionate. 1,180 people supported her in the election. But on three different occasions, Emily felt so alone that she wanted to take her own life.
High school. Maybe you were an athlete, maybe you were a thespian, or maybe you just did whatever you needed to do to get a diploma on graduation day. When you think of high school, you may think of friends. Of prom proposals and parties on the weekends. Homecoming football games, sleepovers, and getting mad at your parents — all the “normal” things. Emily looks back at high school and remembers tragedy. Anonymous Facebook pages dedicated to her demise. Ruthless phone calls and text messages encouraging her to take her own life. She remembers waking up on the bathroom floor; she remembers inpatient treatment at a hospital facility. On the outside, Emily has everything put together. But as she says, you may not always realize it, but everyone has their own story to tell. “We’re all probably just good at wearing our own masks and hiding what’s going on.” Sitting in front of me, her own mask tossed to the wind, Emily is a living, breathing testament to the human ability to overcome adversity.
Making the transition to an all girls’ high school from a co-ed middle school was easier than Emily anticipated. Though she had herself pegged as more of a guys’ girl, a group of (seemingly nice) girls welcomed her into their midst at the beginning of her freshman year. Come November, however, everything changed. Almost immediately after posting a video to a guy friend’s Facebook wall, a video surfaced on the social networking site featuring people with bags on their heads making fun of Emily’s video while playing it in the background. She was confused, sure, because before that she had only had “good friends, not enemies” — but she did not think much of it. It was only when a new profile popped up on Facebook a month later that everything began to fall apart.
“I was at my friend’s house and there was this profile put up,” Emily said. “It was an anonymous profile and it just basically made fun of me the entire time. They would post my face onto different pictures, write posts saying ‘you’re fat’, ‘you’re ugly, ‘you’re a slut,’ ‘you should just die.’” Over the course of her freshman and sophomore years, the creators of the profile friended everyone in Emily’s high school and then began reaching out to people in the general area of her hometown in Philadelphia.The profile eventually acquired 5,000 friends. Then, Emily found out it was her group of friends who had anonymously created the profile.
“No one was sticking up for me,” Emily said.
Although her parents were always extremely supportive of her — and she often thought of her family life as “perfect” — Emily concealed her problems at school because she did not want to bring her family down. Instead, she confided in a close family friend, a girl named Julia. Julia, the one person Emily felt she could call a friend, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor during Emily’s sophomore year. By that summer, Julia passed away and Emily took a turn for the worse.
Feeling alone, depressed and exhausted, Emily locked herself in her room, took as many pills as she could, wrote a suicide letter and laid herself down, waiting to never wake up again. “It didn’t work,” she said. “I woke up and started going to school again and acted like everything was okay.” Junior year, the school noticed Emily’s faltering attendance and called her in to find out the cause. Emily came forward about the Facebook page. The school forced the girls to take it down. But Emily was back to being bullied, this time for ratting people out. She began seeing the school’s guidance counselor and was soon diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She tried to kill herself again.
Emily remembers waking up in the bathroom and seeing her older brother, Greg, crying beside her. “He’s one of those guys that doesn’t cry about anything,” Emily said. “I think that’s part of the reason why I actually ended up getting help, because I saw how distraught he was over the fact that I was trying to take my own life.”
She continued to attend counseling. The school encouraged Emily to go to parties and dances in order to re-socialize her back into the high school sphere and to help her make new friends. As some girls began to fall back on their cruelty, Emily continued to suffer from the depression, the anxiety and the post-traumatic stress brought on by her past. “I didn’t trust anyone,” Emily said. “For three years, they were writing stuff about me, so I wasn’t about to become their best friend.” With all of the built up side effects from Emily’s bruised mental state, every time she heard that someone was talking badly about her, she would, “blow it up to be 100 times worse than a normal person would,” in her head.
The end of senior year rolled around and instead of celebrating, Emily faced another setback. A friend approached her and informed her of another rumor, and Emily mentally collapsed. “A family friend actually saw me sobbing in a parking lot and stopped me and asked ‘Are you okay?’” she said. “I told her, ‘I think I’m going to try to kill myself again.’”
Emily’s friend took her to a mental hospital, where she was checked in for a month’s worth of treatment right after her high school graduation. It started as inpatient, 24-hour watch. Someone accompanying Emily even just to use the restroom. “At that point, I was mixed with being happy to be there because I knew I needed help, but I was also mad because I didn’t want to be there because I’m not crazy,” she said. The next three weeks entailed outpatient therapy with school-day-type hours, where Emily attended group therapy sessions and performed hands-on therapy with arts and crafts. Finally, Emily reached a stable enough mental state and was released.
After some heavy convincing, Emily got her parents to allow her to come to College of Charleston that fall. With her newfound confidence, she started joining every club and organization that she could in order to avoid secluding herself. She was a freshman senator for SGA where she was a member of the Communications Committee, the Campus Affairs Committee and the Student Organization Review Board. She made herself rush for Greek life, even though she did not really want to (and eventually became the Recruitment and Marketing Vice President of her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi). Not to mention being involved in Residence Hall Government, the Catholic Student Association and Club Tennis.
Not only has Emily been productive on campus, but she has been speaking to middle and high schools since her freshman year at College of Charleston about bullying and mental health. Last year, she chose not to disclose much of the information about her past, so very few people knew about her speeches and courageous school visits. Just this year, one of her counselors at the campus Counseling and Substance Abuse Center recommended her for the College’s “Journey of Understanding Talks” presenter for the month of March. This came as a shock to Emily’s friends – and even her parents – who did not know the full extent of her mental health background. She showed up not knowing what to expect and found that there were not enough chairs in the room to seat all of the people who came to hear her speak. The room was filled with support as Emily’s friends, professors, strangers and parents listened to her empowering story.
“It was extremely well-received,” she said.
Emily hopes to continue speaking at middle and high schools to spread awareness about the consequences of bullying and cyberbullying; she even plans to visit her high school to give a presentation there. Emily will not allow her past to determine her future and she will not sit idly by, knowing that these horrible trends continue.
According to stopbullying.gov, a study in 2013 by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey found that 15 percent of high school students were electronically bullied just in that year. Cyberbullying is an epidemic, and because of the constantly evolving nature of social interaction online, it is not easy to pin down the methods used by attackers. The perpetuation of cyberbullying is soaring. Emily’s story is just one case. Upon the announcement of her speech on campus, Emily received texts and Facebook messages saying, “I would have never guessed,” and “You seem so happy.” But this time, the surprised reactions are not arising because she is wearing her mask. Emily no longer attends counseling, and although she has the occasional nightmare or bad day, she is healthy, she is active and she is happy.
From a lifetime of experience, Emily Torchiana knows better than anyone: “You have to realize underneath it all, there are people who are really struggling. And we need to reach out to them.”